The posthumous edits to Roald Dahl's works mark a new escalation
We can’t yet rule out the possibility that Puffin has pulled off a fabulous marketing wheeze. When news broke over the weekend that future editions of their Roald Dahl books would contain hundreds of edits relating to “weight, mental health, violence, gender and race” — the word “fat” removed, for instance, the “Cloud-Men” of James and the Giant Peach swapped for “Cloud-People”, and the phrase “ladies and gentlemen” replaced by “folks” — I immediately marched down to our local children’s bookshop to order a box-set of the original editions that I so enjoyed as a child.
Sixty pounds poorer, it later occurred to me that this might have been what Puffin had intended all along, given that a media furore around free speech is pretty much a guaranteed sales boost. Even the Prime Minister has waded in, with a spokesman (sorry, spokesperson) yesterday insisting that “the Prime Minister agrees with the BFG that you shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words.” The Puffin publicity team must be licking their chops at so much free advertising.
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And I had to admit to myself, too, that I had been inconsistent on another point. My apparent commitment to artistic freedom had not entirely sustained itself when I was actually faced with choosing which books to add to my son’s shelf. Crucially, I had decided against the box set containing The Witches — a book which betrays Dahl’s well-documented antisemitism, given that it features a gang of hook-nosed, money-grubbing women who kidnap and murder children.
I rushed out to buy the old editions of Dahl because I dislike the aggressive, Americanised ideological campaign that is driving such acts of censorship, and I am alarmed by its recent acceleration. Another successful children’s author, Philip Pullman, is among those cheering it on, commenting that Dahl’s publishers ought to “let him go out of print” in order to make way for “wonderful authors who are writing today who don’t get as much of a look-in.” Pullman is a fool if he thinks that this campaign will not eventually come for him, too — delve deep enough, and every author is vulnerable to cancellation.
But that doesn’t mean that I think adults should not pay attention to the politics of children’s fiction. On this point I am forced to agree with the woke editors wielding their big red pens: children’s literature has moral power. We cannot just throw it open to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ and hope for the best — not when children are so very malleable, and when so many adults are so very keen to expose them to their own preferred dogma.
Given that we are currently in the middle of an ideological shift comparable to the Reformation, we shouldn’t be surprised that access to children’s minds is a site of conflict (“give me a child till he is seven years old,” said St Ignatius Loyola, “and I will show you the man.”) What we are really fighting over is not whether children’s fiction should contain a political message, but rather what that message ought to be, and who ought to control it: should it be parents themselves, or the array of (often childless) teachers, publishers, and writers who are rushing to the front lines of the culture war?
The decision to edit Dahl posthumously is an escalation on the part of this latter group of culture warriors, and a troubling one, since it demonstrates their increasing willingness to rewrite history to their own ends. Given their fervour, I am certain that children’s bookshelves are going to remain a battleground.